Child Welfare in Canada: More Federal Assistance, Less Oversight Compared to U.S.

The United States and its northern neighbor are plagued by many of the same child welfare system challenges.

Recent reports have suggested there is a “foster-parent crisis” in Canada, citing a drastic lack of qualified foster parents relative to the number of children in need of foster homes.

The president of the Canadian Foster Family Association, Sheila Durnford, said the foster parent shortage has reached a crisis point nationally, with several jurisdictions routinely forced to house older children in hotels.

Although the U.S. child welfare system is vastly different from Canada’s, it is routinely criticized for the lack of resources provided to foster youth, ineffective policies, and frequent reports of neglect and abuse within state systems. The number of children in foster care nationwide is around 415,000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families’ data from 2014. In 2013, there were an estimated 62,428 children in foster care across Canada.

“The issues are very much the same … there are lingering problems in foster care, trauma-based experiences … and the countries have similar strategies for dealing with that,” said Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in the U.S. and Canada. The Dave Thomas Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding permanent homes for children in foster care.

The child welfare systems in Canada and the U.S., although different in many aspects, employ many similar policies.

“At first blush the main difference is the child welfare system in the U.S. has a federal overlay,” Soronen said. “In Canada there is no federal oversight of child welfare … it’s all at the provincial level.”

In the U.S., states are tasked with protecting children from abuse and neglect and ensuring that they have safe and stable living situations. These services are overseen by each state’s department of child protective services or human services.

Although each state has flexibility to design different funding methods and organizational structures, all states are guided and monitored by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The federal agency often reviews state practices through governmental assessments, including the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System and Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System Assessment Reviews.

“We have a lot of data about who is adopted, who adopted them, how old kids were when they came into care, what age they are when they exit, and how they exit,” said Josh Kroll, project coordinator for the Adoption Subsidy Resource Center at the Northern American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC). NACAC promotes and supports permanent families for children and youth in the U.S. and Canada, particularly youth who are or have been in foster care and those with special needs

This federal oversight allows for nationwide data-tracking of foster care placements and post-adoption data, something that is not available in Canada.

“There is no federal data system in Canada. Trending is much easier, and easier to access in the U.S. You can’t get the data in Canada,” Soronen said.

Nationwide tracking in Canada is challenging because each province and territory has its own child protection legislation and a government agency responsible for child welfare. Each province has different legislation relating to child protection services, making it difficult to compare foster care rates over time or across provinces.

“In Canada there really aren’t those sorts of statistics. The Adoption Council in Canada has tried to get that data,” Kroll said.

All provinces, however, have legislation about reporting child abuse and neglect, and other blanket policies to ensure that the best interests of a child are first priority.

The cultural differences between the nations also influence system structures, particularly with regards to financial support for child welfare agencies.

“Because there is federal funding in the U.S. for child welfare, there is a bit more consistency with adoption assistance and foster care maintenance payments. There’s still a lot of variation in funding between the states, though,” Kroll said.

Although the U.S. provides federal funding for child welfare services, these programs are continually strapped for cash.

“They are not looking at this in Canada,” Soronen said. “In the U.S., it’s ‘how do we use the dollars to create maximum impact?”

Canada has robust family benefits and social welfare assistance, making the limitations for child services funding less of a federal concern.

“In Canada there is little or no federal assistance; the provinces provide their own funding streams. It’s much more varied,” Kroll said.

Despite cultural and structural differences, the two nations share similar policy and practice platforms. Soronen explained that the two systems tend to mirror each other, and that Canada often looks at what’s happening on a policy level in the U.S.

Both systems have shifted focus toward better support for older foster youth and for families post-adoption. Use of evidence-based practices has also increased.

“There are definitely some things Canada could learn from the U. S,” Kroll said. “Overall the U.S. probably does a better job of getting kids in the foster care system into permanent homes.”

Forty-six percent of the 238,230 children who left foster care in the U.S. in 2014 were in care for less than one year. About half of the children who left foster care during this time were discharged to be reunited with their parents or primary guardians.

As policy continues to shift, many challenges lie ahead for the two nations’ foster care systems.

“How do we make sure that we are giving enough attention to the older kids and those with mental and physical disabilities?” Soronen said.

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Devon Ziminski
About Devon Ziminski 23 Articles
Devon is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow. She writes about gun violence, mental health, adoption policy and practice, and education.

1 Comment

  1. hello. my colleagues and i do freedom of information (FOI) and other political work in regards to the province of ON’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS).

    ON is the only province in CAN that uses the private (and hated) Children’s Aid Society corporations to do front-line child protection. in every other province and territory child protection is done directly by a govt Ministry. because they are private corporations, the hated ON CA$s (46 of them currently but that number changes) are exempt from both Ombudsman oversight and Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) oversight=can do FOI on the MCYS but CAN’T do FOI on the CA$s.

    a quintessential example of a system set-up to be abusive and ugly.

    ON’s CA$s are also the only front-line child protectors in CAN who have their (100% tax-payer funded) Public Relations/Lobbyist firm “the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies”…which gets approx. 12 million/year from the MCYS lol so blatantly corrupt. the OACA$ is also a private corporation exempt from FOI and Ombudsman.

    some of the reports, reviews, etc…we obtain are posted to the website. one thing your article doesn’t refer to is the overwhelming incidences of state perpetrated Child and Family Services Act administrative law malicious litigation against the targeted families and their children…which also includes massive systemic strategy of “ineffective assistance of counsel” dump-trucking of cases by the lawyers “parents’ counsel” repping the families desperately trying to litigate their kids back out of stranger danger foster care.

    here below are a few links:
    Protecting Vulnerable Children
    December 1, 2012 permalink

    In 1999 Ontario got a revised Child and Family Services Act, brought into law through an irregular procedure at Queens Park. The first reading took place on April 26, 1999. Seven days later, the legislature completed enactment in a marathon session jamming second and third reading into a single day. There was no roll-call on bill 6 as it was known. In a legislative love-in the deputy speaker (Bert Johnson) declared: “Is it the pleasure of the House that the motion carry? Carried. Be it resolved that the bill do now pass and be entitled as in the motion”. The day after enacting bill 6, the legislature was prorogued.

    Normally, second reading can be delayed by weeks or months, and committee hearings take place after second reading to allow the public to comment and the legislators to educate themselves on the issues. With the breakneck speed of bill 6, the public had no chance to comment on the proposal, or even find out about it. Remember, the internet was in its infancy and the print media never showed complete bills.

    Now through a freedom of information request Chris Carter has unearthed the genesis of the legislation. It is a document titled Protecting Vulnerable Children. A panel of eight experts, all within the social services system, submitted it to then-Minister of Community and Social Services Janet Ecker.
    Prince Edward Operational Review
    January 30, 2013 permalink

    Following disclosure in the press of sexual abuse in Quinte foster homes, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services conducted an operational review of the Prince Edward Children’s Aid Society (PECAS) lasting from December 2011 to January 2012. Recently Chris Carter obtained a copy through freedom of information. It is available in photocopy form (pdf) or as a webpage.
    Financial Chaos at Chatham-Kent Children’s Services
    July 18, 2014 permalink

    Last year Mike Stephens resigned as executive director of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services. Rose Whyte-Bray has used a freedom of information request to provide fixcas with a ministry review completed earlier in the month of Mr Stephens’ resignation.

    The document is Expenditure Management Review of Chatham-Kent Children’s Services, by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services dated August 2013. We have it as a photocopy (pdf) or a web page. According to the press, it is the product of a ministry review conducted in the spring of 2013 of records from April 1, 2010 to March 31, 2013.

    Thanks for writing this article Devon.


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